Screaming drunk secretaries, gyrating hunks in G-strings and mountains of cocaine populate “Welcome to Chippendales,” Hulu’s wonderfully lurid drama about the rise of “the world’s greatest male-stripping empire” and the deadly rivalry that took it down. Skeezy 1980s Hollywood comes alive in this eight-part series, where an immigrant’s dreams of wealth and success lead to one of the weirdest true-crime stories of the era.
Created by Robert Siegel and inspired by the book “Deadly Dance: The Chippendales Murders,” the series, premiering Tuesday, is a multifaceted and highly entertaining look at the unlikely story of Chippendales’ founder — and the tragedy of his success. Somen “Steve” Banerjee (Kumail Nanjiani) was an Indian immigrant with brilliant business ideas and zero social skills, yet he connected with a who’s who of seedy L.A. to build his dream.
Among the cast of colorful, real-life characters is oily self-promoter Paul Snider (played by the chameleonic Dan Stevens), who would become infamous for killing his wife, Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten (Nicola Peltz), before turning the gun on himself. Here he’s an early partner in Chippendales, helping Banerjee come up with gimmicks to get his club off the ground.
Snider’s involvement in the venture is one of many surprising pieces of trivia that establish the contributions of Banerjee’s club, aside from that unfortunate series of hunk-of-the-month calendars. According to “Welcome to Chippendales,” the exotic dance franchise is also responsible for the advent of tear-away Velcro stripper pants and the concept of an all-male strip club for women, inspired by a go-go dancer Banerjee spotted at a gay club that he reluctantly attended with Snider and Stratten. (So many questions answered!) Stratten loves the show, which says a lot, given her status as a pinup. It’s one of many moments in the Hulu series that play off the shifting power dynamics between men and women following the sexual revolution.
Nanjiani nails the role of a stiff, awkward gas station attendant-turned- egomaniacal, paranoid entertainment mogul. There is a palpable anger and resentment brewing under his bland, Sears business-suited exterior. He’s been underestimated and maligned as a brown man in the U.S. and criticized by his family back in India for reaching above his station. Nanjiani individualizes and sells the familiar dynamic of being caught between two worlds, sympathizing with Banerjee before things turn ugly.
The magnetic cast around him includes Juliette Lewis, Annaleigh Ashford and Murray Bartlett. The last plays washed-up children’s show host and B-list choreographer Nick De Noia, who is hired by Chippendales to come up with new dance numbers for their bump ’n’ grind crew. De Noia polishes the act (as much as stuffing dollars in dental-floss skivvies can be refined), helping Banerjee reach new levels of success. He’s the creative side of the business who bristles at his boss’ lack of vision.
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Comments from Banerjee about the progress of the show — “It’s sufficiently spectacular” — are daggers in the heart to the choreographer. Club regular-turned-costume designer Denise (Lewis) comes up with the dance troupe’s exceedingly trashy outfits, while Banerjee’s wife-club accountant, Irene (Ashford), squeezes every penny out of the proceeds, helping to turn the little venture into a booming success.
“Welcome to Chippendales” is full of fun ’80s kitsch, such as “sexy” mullets and mustaches, but that doesn’t mean it turns a blind eye to the grim realities of a decade where racist entrance policies at clubs were the norm, and where the upwardly mobile decadence of a new decade helped turn Banerjee and De Noia’s rivalry into murder.
This engrossing narrative is perfectly situated right at that cultural intersection, retelling the story of the novel idea it produced and the deeply flawed folks who made it happen.
‘Welcome to Chippendales’
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17)
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